If there’s one thing I feel like I missed out on when I was growing up, it’s the experience of having my extended family relatively close by.
Almost every other member of the family lived in one of two cities: Baton Rouge, La., or El Dorado, Ark. Either one was about a 12-hour drive away, so we didn’t see most relatives all that often.
The exception was my great uncle. He lived in St. Louis, too, and we’d see him for most holidays. Uncle Jimmy was a rare bird. I’ve still never met anyone like him. He used to wake up around 3 a.m. to go for a jog and be at work before 5 a.m. He finished up most days in the early afternoon.
On those jogs, Jimmy would occasionally come across t-shirts and things like that. A ball cap here, a shirt there. The crazy thing was that they usually fit him. Mom said he was the only person she ever knew who could shop just by doing his morning jog.
I’ve never been able to keep hours like that. I’m a night owl. In college I didn’t really start to wake up until at least 10 a.m., later if I could get away with it. And forget going to sleep before midnight. I just couldn’t do it.
But I could see the attraction in those quiet hours. So long as I wasn’t waking anyone else up or keeping them from sleeping, I could pretty much do as I pleased without being interrupted. There’s something to be said for that.
Jimmy also had a keen eye for international events. I clearly remember one day when I was maybe in kindergarten. He came over with a huge fold-out map of the world from National Geographic. He showed me where the Falkand Islands are, how close Argentina is, and how far Britain is. He said Britain and Argentina had just fought a war over the islands. I assumed Argentina won, and my understanding of geopolitics was immediately reordered when he said Britain had.
Another area where Jimmy really did have an effect was on my interest in photography. He always took photos, and got some stunning results. When summer storms rumbled through he’d turn up with shots of lightning stretching across the sky, framed by the alley he had pointed the camera down. He loved a good landscape, and he would give framed photos as gifts. I probably have a half-dozen hanging up at home.
After I had finished college and moved out, Jimmy moved to Montana. He kept sending back photos until his health declined. He died about a decade ago.
As much as I appreciate the time I was able to spend with him, it also makes me wonder what I missed not being around other relatives. We’d see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins about once a year, when we made that long drive to Louisiana. But there’s only so much you can learn about a person in a week long visit.
I’m glad my children can spend a bit more time with their extended families. We’re still a few hours away, so it’s not like they’re seeing relatives every day. But it’s close enough that spending spring break at their grandparents’ house isn’t difficult.
They’ll know their cousins, aunts and uncles better than I did. They’ll have memories I didn’t have the chance to make.
And who knows what they’ll learn as a result.